By Chris Schisler
The Baltimore Ravens have had a lot of problems on third down this season. The Ravens are 17-50 on third down attempts this season. This is actually uncharacteristic of the Ravens offense in the Greg Roman and Lamar Jackson era. Efficiency has been the key to their success in past seasons. This year the key has been just avoiding third-down altogether.
Let’s take a look at the third downs on drives that ended in a Sam Koch punt against the Denver Broncos. What went wrong with these plays? How much does play-calling factor into the equation? How can the Ravens improve on third down based on this sample size? Answers are on the way, let’s dive in!
Number 1: A Drop short of the line to gain:
The Ravens’ first drive against the Broncos wasn’t a three-and-out. They managed to pick up the initial third down with a quarterback keeper. It wasn’t blocked particularly well, and it was obviously a play where Lamar was keeping the ball. This led to one of Jackson’s scariest hits of the game, but the Ravens moved the chains.
The Ravens’ next set of downs got them to a 3rd & 8. Sammy Watkins was the intended receiver on an out route run two yards behind the line to gain. Even if Watkins caught the ball, it would have been tough for him to pick up the first down. It’s not the worst play-call in the world as Watkins wasn’t the only read and Jackson did make the right call according to the coverage. I still want the routes to go beyond the first down yardage unless it’s a clever design that sets up the necessary run after the catch.
Number 2: Le’veon Bell gets stuffed
The next Ravens drive saw the Ravens losing the field position battle. On third down and short the Ravens lined up with one back in the backfield. After a motion from the tight end to form a bunch on the left side, the ball was snapped and Le’Veon Bell got the handoff and a whole bunch of nothing. The Ravens ran it right up the gut and the Broncos were ready for it. It’s almost as if you’re known for your running game, teams are ready for a run up the middle on third down. The blocking wasn’t there, the Ravens got pushed back off and the Broncos enforced their will.
Number 3: Never had a chance
The Ravens next drive had the Ravens backed up near their own end zone. It was a third and long and an obvious passing situation. The Ravens lined up in an empty set. What this means is that there was no running back in the backfield and it was five-man protection, completely on the offensive line. Pressure forced Jackson to step up and throw an awkward pass.
Number 4: Latavius Murray gets stuffed
The Ravens had another short-yardage situation on third down. The Ravens motioned Pat Ricard from the left to the right. They ran Latavius Murray right behind him (he almost ran into Ricard). This was another running play up the middle with a little window dressing to go with it. The Ravens should be getting familiar with the result of that method at this point.
Number 5: False Start, Blitz, Sack…
The Ravens were forced into a 3rd & 11 after a false start penalty. The Broncos took the obvious passing situation to send a beautifully executed blitz. Jackson was sacked before the play had a chance to fairly develop.
Last but not least: The same old thing from the Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens needed one yard on third down. They lined up with their fullback and a tight end creating an unbalanced line. This time there was no motion, just the extra blockers to one side. Where did the Ravens run it? You guessed it, right up the gut. What was the result? The same old thing.
That’s what happened, now let’s talk about it:
I’m willing to cut Greg Roman a little slack. The Ravens don’t have J.K. Dobbins or Gus Edwards this year. When you look at the third-down running failures, this makes a huge difference. Le’Veon Bell has barely had time to work in regular-season and the Broncos are a tough way to get going for him. Still, I have some qualms about how the Ravens approach short-yardage situations, especially outside of the red zone.
The most frustrating thing is how ready the opposing defense has been for the Ravens running plays on third down. We’re not even seeing creative calls here. Half the time the pre-snap motion leads the defense right to the running back’s point of attack.
You have to think that these plays are opportunities for Lamar Jackson to make a difference. If the defense is jumping this hard against the run, play-action presents big chances down the field. Pass protection has been better than run blocking, for the most part, this season (I know, it’s weird). If you’re not going to pick up a high percentage of short-yardage situations, you might as well take a shot down the field. That would loosen up the defense for next time.
Jackson is the MVP of this team. On third down, he should more often than not get the chance to move the chains. His dual-threat ability gives him the chance to run or pass for the first down. You have options when Jackson has the ball on the pivotal play.
What happened to the RPO’s? Safe completions with Jackson rolling out make sense. The key here is to increase the likelihood of a first down, rather than pinning your chances on something the team isn’t doing well. It’s almost as if Roman can’t feel the way the game is going and how the matchup is playing out.
The Ravens are without Ronnie Stanley. At one point in this game, the Ravens were also without Alejandro Villanueva who left with a knee injury. This offense needs all the help it can get when everybody on the planet knows a pass is coming. Roman has to be more careful than lining up Jackson in an empty set. Five-man protection against a likely blitz is putting the offense in a bad spot.
When you boil it down, Roman has some problems to deal with but is culpable for the Ravens’ third down failures. While this is only a sample of third-down attempts against the Broncos, this has been a problem all season long. When the Ravens couldn’t move the ball against the Raiders in key spots, these same tendencies showed up.